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Visiting The Taj Mahal And Rashtrapati Gardens Made Me Question My 'Free Citizen' Status

I felt more like a mere subject.

06/04/2017 1:24 PM IST | Updated 10/04/2017 9:12 AM IST
Jorge Silva / Reuters

I'm not entirely sure of how I came to believe that old buildings like the Lal Qila and Taj Mahal were symbols of the Indian national identity, or of why my mind conjured up vivid images of their photographs whenever I felt especially patriotic. It must have happened while watching the Amar Jawan Jyot on TV on Republic Day, or while hearing the Prime Minister's Independence Day speech delivered from the Lal Qila. I also suspect that it had a lot to do with the kind of history and civics that we are taught as part of the standard school curriculum. In any case, I, like a lot of other Indians, grew up convinced that all of our feelings of national pride, along with the Constitution's ideals of democracy, integrity and republicanism could rally around a beautiful old Indo-Persian monument of red sandstone.

I grew up convinced that all of our feelings of national pride, along with the Constitution's ideals of democracy, integrity and republicanism could rally around a beautiful old Indo-Persian monument...

Somewhere in this process, I also began to mix up conceptions of how I personally defined my national identity with how the world abroad would perceive it. I loved India and wanted to make it incredible for everyone who lived in its territory, and also for those who heard about it from outside. For this, our people had to be well turned out, and our monuments had to be squeaky clean and shiny. Maybe because of that, the Atithi Devo Bhavah campaign's heightened focus on ensuring that foreign tourists had a good time visiting heritage monuments was not exaggerated at all. It may also explain why, knowing that India is really the "land of the Taj Mahal", made voting for its inclusion within the list of world-wonders a non-negotiable matter of national pride.

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I recently had a chance to witness the hospitality that we provide to foreign visitors at the Taj Mahal. Slightly ashamed that I hadn't visited this wonder, the mere mention of which brightens up the faces of my foreign friends, I decided to make a day trip to Agra and finally see the Taj. As I approached the Taj Mahal complex, I realised that all the stories that one hears about being accosted by potential guides and salesmen are quite true, and somewhat underplayed. There were hundreds of Samaritans informing me that the line to get into the Taj Mahal complex would have me waiting for a good 2.5 hours, and that instead, I should let them get me inside in a jiffy, only for a small price of ₹300. I knew that this kind of magic was obviously impossible at a government managed site, and by now, I have become fairly tired and intolerant of ingratiating men telling me what to do. I wanted to enjoy the Taj Mahal in peace, without the oily buzz of their explanations. So, I ignored all offers of tour-guidance and quick entry, confident in my abilities to navigate the monument by myself. After all, I was fluent in Hindi, knew enough about the Taj Mahal's history, and was, above all, an Indian citizen.

[The Taj Mahal] is yet another microsystem where privileged Indians can distance themselves from the harrowing experiences of everyone else by buying expensive tickets that are not offered to everyone.

Unsurprisingly, the line at the ticket window only had me waiting for a mere 15 minutes. I duly bought a ticket for ₹40, as was required from Indian citizens, and smiled smugly at the guide population surrounding the Taj Mahal that day. It was only when I reached the entrance to the monument complex, that I realised that there were two different categories of gender-segregated queues; one for those Indians who, like me, had bought their tickets for ₹40, and the other, for foreign nationals and high value-ticket holding Indians. High value tickets could only have been purchased from one of those annoying guides who hang around the monument, and had earlier made offers of magically whisking me inside the Taj Mahal at the nominal price of ₹300. The ticket window itself had provided no obvious information about such segregated entry, leaving any self-reliant Indian visitor to buy, by default, the low value tickets. It was only if you had previously doubted your ability to navigate the Taj, and had hired a guide to help you, that you would have been included in that special class of citizens who were to be provided the kind of hospitality which is reserved for our foreign guests.

In addition to being long, the plebeian queues to the Taj Mahal are sites of harassment. Through their length, one is subject to insult at the hands of the security officers in charge of managing them. The officers are rude and demeaning, as they usher you about as cattle from door to door, and room to room. Male guards jostling women around is not an uncommon occurrence; and one of the many horrifying things I saw them do was to violently push away a woman who was carrying a baby in her arms, leaving her to hold on to another visitor's arm to save the child from injury. In spite of the guards' constantly yelling at you to behave, or not behave in a certain way, they are somehow unable to check the alarming sexual abuse which occurs within the narrow staircases and closed rooms of the Taj Mahal. Foreign guests, and Indians who choose to pay to be treated like foreign guests, are saved these experiences. It leaves me perplexed that while regular Indian citizens go through versions of what I just described, those who can afford it can choose to visit an empty Taj Mahal on full-moon nights as part of expensive packages offered by luxury hotels, or can, as Will Dalrymple describes, even stare at the monument from comfortable bathtubs in their rooms in such hotels.

We're taught to locate our abstract feelings of national pride and unity in our concrete heritage. And yet, visits to them are reminders of the misfortunes of less free times...

Despite all of this, I loved my visit to the Taj Mahal. The monument is marvellous, and the view of the Yamuna from its parapets is mesmerising. The marble, the carvings and pillars speak only of beauty and love.

But I can no longer think of the Taj Mahal as a sign of our diverse Indian democracy. It is a place where security officers grope women's breasts at the entrance for ladies, and when called out for it, rudely ask them remain in their level. It is yet another microsystem where privileged Indians can distance themselves from the harrowing experiences of everyone else by buying expensive tickets that are not offered to everyone.

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Every spring, gates to the President's Mughal gardens are thrown open for public visits. Excited to be in Delhi when this was happening, my mother and I landed up at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on a Sunday afternoon, soon after my visit to the Taj Mahal. While entry into the gardens was free for everyone, we were once again made to stand in long gender-segregated queues, managed by rude guards. Before we could enter the gardens through the narrowest of its several gates. I remember wondering why this was necessary but calmed myself down by thinking of the obvious security reasons which necessitated it. The same security reasons required us to leave all our bags at a cloakroom before we entered. However, like the practice followed at the Taj Mahal, there is no obvious public information provided to this end, and one has to stand through the long queues for hours before they are told to deposit the bags and join their tails again.

The Taj Mahal and the Rashtrapati Bhavan are very beautiful, but to me, they fell quite short of serving as symbols of Indian unity, freedom, or equality.

When we finally entered, the gender segregation ended, and everyone poured into what was going to be an hour-long stampede. Most of the landscape areas of the gardens were off-limits to visitors, and we were forced to jostle with each other as we walked from garden to garden, taking selfies and saving our bodies from as much harassment as we could. There are no exits, even for emergencies, and the only way out of the crowd is through it. The guards here, like the ones at the Taj Mahal, are discourteous and handsy.

I wonder if it is ironic that, right there, in the hood and shadow of the head of the Indian state, I suddenly began to feel more like a mere subject than the free citizen that I believed I was.

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We're taught to locate our abstract feelings of national pride and unity in our concrete heritage. And yet, visits to them are reminders of the misfortunes of less free times—that it is our fate to be ushered around by officials, and that there does exist another class of citizenry which is entitled to walk the same grounds in situations of much greater privilege. The Taj Mahal and the Rashtrapati Bhavan are very beautiful, but to me, they fell quite short of serving as symbols of Indian unity, freedom, or equality.

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